WB toolkit aims to improve food security in Latin America, Caribbean

Friday, December 07, 2012
[PHOTO: Dag Endresen/Flickr/CC BY 2.0] 
Washington: In the midst of an ongoing global financial turmoil and rising food prices, a new toolkit designed by the World Bank seeks to assist countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region to ensure the health, food and nutritional security of the most vulnerable, especially poor mothers and young children. 

LAC is more vulnerable to natural disasters, food price volatility and humanitarian crises than other regions. Against this background, any new crisis and emergency situation represents a heavy toll on the nutritional status of the population, notably children.  It is estimated that 7.2 million children under five years of age are chronically malnourished in the region.

The study, “How to Protect and Promote the Nutrition of Mothers and Children:  A Toolkit for Stable, Crisis, and Emergency Situations,” involved 130 survey participants in 12 LAC countries. It shows that most crisis-response policies and programs have overlooked the essential nutritional needs of mothers and their children in the first 1000 days of life, a critical period for a child's development.  In order to eradicate malnourishment in the region, these initiatives need to be improved and prioritize the most vulnerable groups, the study concludes.

To help countries improve the efficiency of their crisis and emergency response, the toolkit offers policy and decision makers a clear guidance on cost-efficient measures that can help countries better ensure the nutritional security of the population. For instance, all countries need to reinforce the promotion and protection of breastfeeding. A number of countries would benefit from adapting the food and water rations given in emergencies to the specific nutritional needs of pregnant and lactating women and children under 2 years of age.  Other suggested measures include the prevention of micronutrient deficiencies during emergencies, treatment of acute malnutrition, and efficient treatment of diarrhea through the combined use of oral rehydration solution and zinc. 

The findings of the study and the toolkit will be presented during the south-south workshop “Protecting the Nutrition of Mothers and Children: Tools for Crisis Managers”, in Panama City, on December 6 and 7.

“The first 1000 days of life of a child is a critical window of opportunity for her growth and development. Failure to address the nutritional needs of mothers and children as part of crisis-management results in human suffering and missed opportunities for developing every person’s potential,” said Keith Hansen, World Bank Director for Human Development for Latin America and the Caribbean. “This toolkit shows that initiatives that successfully target the nutritional needs of pregnant and lactating mothers and young children are the best investments countries can make to protect the most vulnerable from food insecurities and socioeconomic and environmental instabilities. They also have a long-term impact on the country's economic development and can break the intergenerational cycle of poverty brought about by malnutrition."

Malnutrition decreases the children’s ability to resist infections and disease, such as anemia and diarrhea, and causes lifelong physical and cognitive damages.  Malnutrition rates among the poorest and least educated, as well as indigenous populations, are comparable to rates in some Sub-Saharan Africa countries. 

The prevalence of malnutrition in the region is also the result of national and international crises. When an economic crisis hits, the quality of food purchased by families diminishes.

“During crisis, poor families tend to reduce the quantity of food they consume or replace for lower quality alternatives, such as foods with refined sugar and fats, and even cut down on preventive health services," said Marie Chantal Messier, World Bank Senior Nutrition Specialist and lead author of the toolkit. “During harsh times, women frequently consume less food to protect their children's diet, which compromises their own nutritional security. If they are pregnant, this creates a cycle that harms both the mothers’ and their children’s health.”

Malnutrition is not limited to the quantity and the quality of food consumed by the population, but it is also related to access to potable water, sanitation and health services. The study encourages governments and development partners to maximize limited financial and management resources, by prioritizing initiatives encompassing the sector of health, nutrition, agriculture, water and sanitation, and social protection.

The toolkit is the result of an assessment that compared international benchmarks with initiatives adopted by 12 countries from the Latin American and the Caribbean: Bolivia, Colombia, Dominica, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. Countries were selected for the study taking into account their poverty level, malnutrition rates, susceptibility to natural disasters and increase in vulnerability as a result of the recent global financial crisis and food price hikes.
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